“EA Sports. It’s in the game.”
There was once a time when hearing Andrew Anthony voice that iconic tagline let you know that you were in for something special. Over the better part of the past decade, EA Sports is best known for removing and reselling features, reusing assets, pushing gamers towards microtransactions, and coasting on exclusive licenses. However, that wasn’t always the case.
In the midst of the golden age of sports video games, EA found a way to innovate. Nowhere is that more apparent than with its 2004-05 lineup. Nearly 17 years later, Madden 2005, MVP Baseball 2005, NBA Live 2005, Nascar 2005, and NCAA Football 2005 remain some of the most remarkable entries in sports gaming. That’s not even counting FIFA 2005, NHL 2005, Fight Night or the NCAA March Madness title; four more than respectable games in their own right. Not to mention, two NFL Street releases. EA was in its bag. This 365-day output can go blow-for-blow with any publisher as the greatest single year achievement in gaming history.
The truly fascinating and impressive thing about EA’s 2004-05 lineup is how each game offered an enormous innovation not only to its respective series, but in many cases the genre and console gaming as a whole. With that said, it’s time to dive into exactly what made this year so special. So dust off your PS2, find the wires for that Xbox, and make sure your GameCube has a good controller. We’re going back to 2004 for a bit.
EA Sports’ Legendary 2004-05 Lineup
NCAA Football‘s Homefield Advantage
EA Sports began its unprecedented run on July 15, 2004. Though often overlooked, NCAA Football 2005 was the best representation of college football at the time, and it laid the groundwork for the greatness that would arrive just one year later. NCAA Football 2005 was a near perfect combination of collegiate atmosphere and peak Madden gameplay. NCAA 2005 married great customization features such as Create-a-Playbook, Create-a-Sign, and 1AA/Historic rosters with rock solid gameplay additions like Playmaker and the ability to control celebrations. The “Big Hit” button even foreshadowed what was coming downstream for its big brother title. However, NCAA Football 2005’s true innovation was Home Field Advantage (which would later go on to be a main selling point in Madden 22).
25 Toughest Places to Play
NCAA 2005 ranked the “25 Toughest Places to Play” based on home winning percentage, fan attendance, and overall atmosphere. This feature was immersive. Sounds were multi-tiered and it had a tangible in-game impact. During team introductions, lesser opponents could be intimidated by raucous crowds and show nerves leaving the tunnel. When the stadium was in a frenzy, the controller and camera shook. On offense, sometimes multiple audible calls were needed for skill positions to hear them. Opposing players would throw their hands up in frustration, receivers could run the wrong routes, and quarterbacks were forced to go to a silent count when snapping the ball out of Shotgun. On D, a few taps of L2 pumped up the crowd and egged on fans to roar louder.
With just a 25-second play clock, timeouts and delay of games were frequent. Player composure could be viewed mid-game and attributes dynamically changed based on performance. Homefield Advantage wasn’t just some static ranking of the toughest places to play either. In Dynasty mode, the top 25 HFA’s shifted based on the three factors previously listed. This allowed players the opportunity to build their school into one of the most unwelcoming environments in the nation for opposing teams and eventually overtake the Florida Gators’ “Swamp.”
EA Sports Madden NFL 2005 Introduces the Hit-Stick
Just 25 days later, EA Sports found a way to take its flagship title to even greater heights. Despite being over a decade and a half old at this point, a strong case can be made that Madden 2005 is still the greatest Madden ever. It felt so different from every other Madden that came before it, thanks in large part to its newest feature. This was EA at the top of its game.
The introduction of the Hit Stick changed football video games forever. It made defense matter. While NCAA Football’s “Big Hit” button teased toward this mechanic, Madden 2005 extended a hand beyond that. It was much more visceral. The Hit Stick brought an offensive approach to the defensive side of the ball. The Hit Stick, well… just play the clip.
Madden 2005 was defense reinvented. The Hit Stick was integrated beautifully. Lining up a ballcarrier perfectly and sending his helmet flying through the virtual fall air was a visual treat. There was a duality to EA’s latest innovation. Time it right and force a momentum-shifting fumble; but whiff, and watch your opponent run to daylight and rip off a big gain. Trying to Hit Stick a bruising back, like Jerome Bettis, up high with a smaller defender would fail miserably.
No other Madden did more to right the wrongs of previous titles than Madden 2005. It was so incredibly competent at everything. It was a game that welcomed casual football fans and gamers with open arms, while simultaneously showcasing the depth to entertain the hardcore NFL enthusiast. Madden 2005 expanded on 2004 in nearly every aspect. So much so that it gave the NFL enough confidence to lock up the exclusive rights with EA that still stand today. It was somehow deeper and more addictive than its predecessor, and built the foundation for the great titles that would close out Madden’s incredible run on the sixth generation of consoles.
From the dizzying amount of game options, to the Italian marble-like polish and buttery smooth gameplay; EA’s 2005 entry of its then-illustrious series was a rich experience. It wasn’t perfect in every single way, but when you think about what a Madden game means in terms of seamless, immersive gameplay and sheer heft of depth; Madden 2005 stakes its claim as the definitive Madden and one of the best titles to enter the genre.
… in this one special year nearly every game EA released set a bar in something that other gaming publishers had to aspire to.
Fight To The Top
Upon its release, NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup lapped the field with one of the greatest career modes in the history of sports games. NASCAR’s Fight To The Top not only teased toward what EA would be delivering to us with Madden 06’s Superstar mode; but little did anyone know it would become the shape of sports games to come less than five years later.
Fight To The Top starts out with a street race against famed No. 12 car driver Ryan Newman. After beating the 2002 NASCAR Rookie of the Year, your character is extended a contract offer to drive the No. 192 Dodge Featherlite Series car. After which you sign with an agent and begin your career. EA gave players the chance to race a full season in each Cup Series while earning new rides and sponsorships. This included the Featherlite Modified, Craftsman Truck, Nextel Cup, and Busch Series.
Hero vs. Villain
Fight To The Top featured a Hero/Villain Meter akin to an RPG title. You could be the “good guy” and help fellow racers draft off of you. Or, you could use the new Intimidator Control to rattle the cages of opposing drivers and cause them to wreck. The system was intuitive. Allies would let you pass underneath and draft, while rivals bumped you and came after your driver at all costs. Post-race altercations were commonplace. After races, you’d receive a notification on your cell phone asking whether or not you wanted to apologize, furthering your hero/villain status. Differences between your archenemies could also be settled off the track through high-speed street races in production cars.
The career mode even incorporated an ingenious autograph mini-game tied to the meter. The more autographs you were able to sign in a given time, the more money and popularity you’d receive. However, if you felt especially villainous and decided to burn fans, you’d quickly become one of the track’s biggest bad guys. Once your character is established as a racing power, you could purchase your own racing team and begin building an empire (at every Cup Series level).
Beyond its groundbreaking story mode, NASCAR 2005 is just as good. From its accessible, simulation-leaning gameplay, to its incredible damage engine and immaculate sound design (for the time), Chase for the Cup remains a must-play for any NASCAR or racing fan.
Put on Your GameFace (II)
At one time, EA Sports was a big supporter of creativity. Nowhere is that more evident than the GameFace feature in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005. Not only was Tiger Woods 2005 the best overall game of its kind at release, but it showcased one of the most impressive create-a-player features in video games. Period.
GameFace II had an insane amount of creative depth. Nearly every aspect of your character could be altered. From skull structures, lip sizes, and skin tones to the smallest of details like smile lines and age spots. The ability to personalize your character in such a drastic way really created a strong bond between the user and the gameplay.
In addition to GameFace, there was a ridiculous amount of items to customize your character with in the Pro Shop. Tiger Woods 2005 added nearly 1500 new items to the shop, bringing the total to around 2500. The Pro Shop ranged from brands like Oakley and Tag Heur to more ridiculous costume-like pieces. The shop also had a nifty search tool that really helped players parse through the virtual store’s enormous selection. Think NBA 2K’s MyCareer but in 2004. Minus the microtransactions. There was even a logo editor that allowed for you to create your own brand. The replayability factor was sky-high.
NBA Live celebrated its 10th birthday in grand fashion. From the incredibly fluid and fun Freestyle Air gameplay, to the insane graphical leap from the previous year, to the PDA in Dynasty mode. But, what made Live 2005 truly special was All-Star Weekend.
To this day, NBA Live 2005 boasts the greatest implementation of All-Star Weekend ever in a basketball game. This mode featured the Dunk Contest, 3-Point Shootout, Rookie Challenge, and NBA All-Star Game. The All-Star Saturday events had a tremendous presentation package featuring Ernie Johnson and Kenny “The Jet” Smith, while the usual fantastic duo of Marv Albert and Mike Fratello commentated over the 5-on-5 action.
A Slam Dunk
Although the dunk contest leaned more towards the arcade side, it was incredible. Lobs off of the shot clock, big screens, backboard, and more were all possible. 720’s? Double between-the-legs slams? Why not? The amount of alley-oop and dunk combinations at your disposal was mind-boggling, especially for sixth gen hardware. Any player with a dunk rating over 80 could be used in the standalone mode and up to four players could participate at once. This made for one of the best party modes of the couch multiplayer era. The atmosphere was simply amazing. Lighting was dazzling. High-scoring dunks would bring the crowd of players sitting on the floor to their feet, some of them holding camcorders and getting hyped. Dunk contest legends such as the great Julius Erving served as judges. And Ernie and Kenny hold your ear with reactions that feel like they’re actually watching your performance from the booth.
But don’t get it twisted, the rest of All-Star Weekend was incredibly fun. The 3-Point Shootout was equally addictive and featured signature animations for some of the games best shooters. The All-Star Game’s gameplay was noticeably faster. It featured more dunks, more threes, less fouls, and even self alley-oops that couldn’t be triggered in regular gameplay. This level of attention to detail hasn’t been seen in an EA game in a long time. Maybe ever.
EA Sports Doesn’t Miss with the Hitter’s Eye
EA Sports capped off it’s incredible lineup with MVP Baseball 2005, easily the greatest baseball video game ever made. Some would even argue the best sports game ever made. MVP Baseball was a five-tool player: an extremely deep dynasty/owner mode, an iconic soundtrack, fantastic animations, brilliant graphics, and mesmerizing mini-games, (and Jon Dowd). However, EA continued building the best baseball experience on the market by incorporating the Hitter’s Eye mechanic.
The Hitter’s Eye added to the laundry list of innovations that the previous year’s title brought to console baseball gaming. MVP Baseball‘s latest feature color-coded and highlighted pitches to indicate what type of pitch was coming. The color of the pitch was more visible to good hitters and lower rated batter’s would be lucky to get a quick glimpse. The beauty was in the balance though. Pitchers whose windup would cover up the ball longer, hid the color longer. So it was strength on strength.
Unfortunately, this was the last (MLB) MVP Baseball title. In response to EA buying the exclusive rights to the NFL, 2K responded by doing the same for MLB. MVP Baseball 2005 still plays better than any baseball game before or after it. The franchise truly went out on top.
What Happened to EA?
It’s been a long time since an EA Sports title featured best-in-class in well… anything. However, in this one special year nearly every game EA released set a bar in something that other gaming publishers had to aspire to. Across its immense variety of titles, EA served as a masterclass of how to bridge the gap between easily accessible and incredibly deep. Many of the publisher’s best titles would remain a dominant force on the sixth generation before losing their way and paring off after the jump to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. So many people have such fond memories of each of these games. It’s funny and also a little sad that EA’s video games from almost 20 years ago can stand toe-to-toe with its modern titles in terms of gameplay, depth, sandbox-like creativity, and genuine care for the sport they replicate.
In most cases, it’s not even much of a competition.
Which of these games was your favorite EA Sports release and why? Let us know in the comments section. If you like the work we do here at Sports Gamers Online, consider supporting us by becoming an SGO Insider.